At the height of almost any debate about free speech, censorship, cancel culture, groupthink, the progressive takeover of this or that institution, and so on, someone will likely bring up the “line-drawing” argument. The idea is that nobody is an invariable supporter of free speech or an invariable opponent of censorship. Most of us favor restrictions on plagiarism, copyright infringement, physical threats, false advertising, and maybe even some political speech. So, this argument maintains, the debate isn’t really about free speech or censorship, because everyone agrees that some speech should be restricted. Instead, the debate is about “where to draw the line”—about just how bad speech must be, how much harm it must cause or how easily it must be proven false or destructive, to merit restriction.
Consider some examples. In the Hedgehog Review, Alan Jacobs writes, “A good many people claim to be ‘free speech absolutists,’ but I’m not sure whether they really are. Push an absolutist hard enough with edge cases and you typically discover that they do indeed draw lines beyond which speech may not be permitted to go. . . . The bug-eyed extremists will always be with us, of course, but most people involved in these conversations grasp—even when they don’t want to admit it—the idea that speech should be as free as possible without inflicting unwarranted and unjust harm on others. We may seem to be operating with irreconcilable principles, but we usually aren’t.” In ArcDigital last summer, Nicholas Grossman wrote, “Activists have identified various expressions as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted and argue that treating those expressions as beyond the pale—like we treat overt racial slurs and Holocaust denial—would improve society by making historically marginalized people closer to equal. One could disagree with this line of argument, of course, but it’s been pretty successful, influencing various institutions and persuading many young people. Defending free speech in the abstract doesn’t really counter it, because free speech isn’t really being attacked. . . . [T]he hard part isn’t telling other people to be more open to ideas they don’t like. It’s drawing the lines of socially acceptable expression and determining appropriate responses to transgressing those norms.” Citing Grossman, Zack Beauchamp concluded in Vox that “[t]he real debate here is not about the principle of free speech, but the much grayer question of how we draw its boundaries. . . . That’s not a conflict over the principles of a free society but the rules that govern its operation in practice.”
I don’t think that the line-drawing argument holds up. Arguments of this kind are quickly parodied. Say I want to burn down a building, you think I shouldn’t do so, and the reason you give is that arson is bad. Now say that we both agree that if burning down a building could somehow save dozens of lives, it would be right to burn down a building. It would be absurd for me then to say, “This debate isn’t really about arson, but about where to draw the line of socially acceptable arson.” The existence of an exception to the no-arson rule does not mean that I can now wave away the idea of arson as a side issue. Similarly, the existence of exceptions to rules against censorship does not allow its proponents to wave away free speech and censorship as irrelevant or, as Jacobs calls them, “a no-man’s land of rhetorical barbed wire and land mines.”
Even within the realm of free speech, would the advocates of the line-drawing argument accept its clear consequences? If the line-drawing argument is right, then it would not be an affront to free speech to ban, for instance, pornography, criticism of Israel, advocacy of Communism, or negative newspaper articles about certain public figures. Those would just be different ways of drawing the boundaries of free speech; on the terms of the line-drawing argument, they wouldn’t be instances of true censorship. And surely activists in favor of banning such things might at some point become successful, influence institutions, or persuade young people. But such success would tell us nothing about free speech.
In fact, the situation is even worse for the line-drawing argument. If debates about free speech are not actually about free speech, then they must be about something else. But anything else they could be about—harm, racism, social justice, equality—would also be a moral principle that would have exceptions in many cases and that would also be susceptible to the redrawing of boundaries. So, by the logic of the line-drawing argument, these debates could not be about any of those things, either; in fact, no moral or political debate could ever be about anything.
Even if two sides in a debate both seem to hold to a principle, they can vary wildly in their adherence to that principle. If one partner in a romantic relationship thinks that the relationship should continue unless it becomes emotionally or financially devastating, and the other partner thinks that the relationship should continue only until it becomes slightly inconvenient, they agree on a little, but not a lot. Free speech advocates, whether or not they’re “absolutists,” tend to feel about free speech the way the first person feels about the relationship, while those who claim that free speech isn’t what these debates are about seem more like the second person. In such a relationship, the party whose principle commits them in a more extreme way to sticking it out is bound to say something like: “You don’t care about this relationship—not the way I do.” In the same way, even if there is some limited sense in which the aggressive censors and activists do care about free speech, they do not care about it in the same sense that free speech advocates care about it.
Are the potential harms caused by speech, frequently mentioned by both sides of such debates, really what is at stake in these debates? Consider the recent furor surrounding Alexi McCammond, appointed as editor of Teen Vogue before being fired for decade-old anti-Asian tweets. Those who found McCammond’s statements problematic circulated them extensively and demanded consequences. But if these activists thought that hearing or reading the tweets would actually harm people, wouldn’t they instead be trying to make sure as few people heard or read them as possible? Perhaps what such activists really want to do is allege that the speech provides a kind of window into the soul of the speaker: because this person made these anti-Asian tweets, we can conclude that she really does harbor anti-Asian sentiments, and because we are antiracist, we should impose consequences for those who harbor such sentiments. That better explains the actions of activists and complainants, the system of constant interpersonal surveillance that they seem to favor, and the online cycle of collective promotion and cancellation that recurs with such frequency.
In general, we should be skeptical of people who try to argue by attempting to shift our sense of what some debate or event is “about.” “Aboutness” itself isn’t about much of anything. When someone starts haranguing about what some debate is or isn’t about, interpret it as a sign of what they do or don’t want to talk about. If someone says, “Politics is about power,” it means that they want to talk about power. If someone says, “So-called free speech debates aren’t about free speech,” it means that they don’t want to talk about free speech.
We should make our cases as best we can without resorting to these framing devices. And if the target principle of free speech really is outweighed by other compelling factors, it will be possible to explain why without demanding that free speech be ignored.